Dietary habits: Poor nutrition fuels obesity epidemic

Monday, August 26th, 2019 00:15 |
Henry Ng’ethe.

As she walks through one of Nairobi’s busy streets, a woman seemingly in her late 20s endures curious stares and jeers from cart pushers. “Sit here, we will push you,” they taunt her.

She ignores them and rushes past. It is clear she is used to the insults, but is still bothered as moments later she takes out a handkerchief and wipes her eyes.

It was uncommon to find many Kenyans built like her. Standing at about 5’ 7” tall and about 100 kgs, the lady is clearly obese. But now, the broadening of Kenyan’s waistlines is everywhere.

While there are no statistics on obesity in Kenya, 2014 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS) revealed that a third of women in Kenya were either obese or overweight. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) survey showed obesity in those aged between five and 19 years has increased from one per cent, which is equivalent to five million girls and six million boys in 1975 to nearly six per cent in girls (50 million) and nearly eight per cent in boys (74 million) in 2016. 

Obesity is defined as excess accumulation of fat in the body. It is measured through Body Mass Index (BMI), with the ideal range between 18.5-24.9. If an individual has a BMI above that, they are considered overweight or obese.

Henry Ng’ethe,  a nutritionist, says the degree of malnutrition is severe amongst urban dwellers more than rural counterparts. As cities expand, so do the numbers of the malnourished.

He says lack of purchasing power affects the urban poor’s ability to buy food, which in turn affects household dietary quality.

On the other hand, better living standards in the urban middle class largely contributed to bulging waistlines due to their appetite for fast foods.

“People with small budgets are susceptible to food price fluctuations and adopt several coping strategies such as switching to cheaper and lower quality staple. But as they rise to the middle and upper middle class, they still don’t opt for healthy food choices as fast food is lodged in their household,” says Ng’ethe.

More Kenyans have embraced fast foods, high in energy, packed with cholesterol and high in fat content, and ditched traditional foods, which are more nutritious. He says there is a ‘double burden’ of malnutrition: under-nutrition (nutrient deficiency) and over-nutrition (obesity and overweightness).

Food security

In the effort to obtain food security, Ng’ethe says the country has overlooked the nutritional value of a daily meal. “Apart from individuals checking their own diets, food systems really need to move from feeding to nourishing people,” he explains.

Effects of poor eating habits include hypertension, the most common cardiovascular disease accounting for over 50 per cent of hospital inpatient admissions and 40 per cent of hospital deaths.

“Eating too much junk food, fried food, salt, sugar, dairy products, caffeine and refined food can cause hypertension,” says Ng’ethe. 

Poor nutrition can lead to diabetes, high cholesterol (a primary contributor to heart disease) and stroke.  According to the American National Institute of Health, several types of cancers are linked to  poor dietary habits.

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